Part 12: The rise of syndicalism and industrial unionism

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The wave of class struggle that broke out between 1908 and the start of the First World War had a profound impact on the workers’ movement in Britain. Through the scale and militancy of the struggle the working class confronted not only the state but also the dominant trade union and political organisations of the workers’ movement. Their reformism, opportunism and class collaboration had fettered the class struggle for many years. Through their struggle the proletariat in Britain reasserted itself as a class, showing not only vigorous combativity but also a consciousness of its interests as a class.

The movement was marked by two main tendencies. The assertion of the necessity for militant industrial action, including the general strike on the one hand, and for unity on the other. These tendencies were also expressed in the wave of struggles in the late 1880s that led to the creation of the new unions and the ILP, were a corrective to the excessive focus on the parliamentary struggle, that marked both the ILP and the SDF, and to the sectarianism and division to which the movement had succumbed during the intervening decades. At its most fundamental the wave of struggle expressed again the potential of the proletariat in Britain to create a revolutionary class party.

The situation that actually developed became defined by the growth of syndicalism and by the creation of the British Socialist Party and it is these two aspects that will be examined in this and the next part of the series.

Syndicalism and Industrial Unionism

Syndicalism and industrial unionism both saw the trade unions as an instrument of the revolutionary struggle, rather than a means to win reforms from the ruling class and draw the working class together. While the terms have sometimes been used almost interchangeably, in reality, even though individuals moved between the two and there was some co-operation, they were divided on the question of political action and the strategy to adopt towards the existing unions. Syndicalism had its roots in developments within the trade union movement in France, in particular the foundation of the Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT) in 1895. It was strongly influenced by anarchism and rejected political action but worked within the existing unions. Industrial Unionism in contrast, which emerged in America under the influence of the Socialist Labor Party, supported political action while seeking to create new ‘industrial’ unions to replace the old ‘craft’ ones. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) founded in 1905 was an expression of this tendency, although following a split it later became anti-political. Industrial Unionism can be seen as a flawed attempt to respond to the new conditions being posed as capitalism moved from its period of ascendance into the period of decadence and the old trade union form became increasingly obsolete. It sought to provide an answer to the question of how to organise and to struggle in the new period, but the real answer was provided in Russia in 1905 and again in 1917, in the mass strike and the soviet form of organisation.

The SLP and Industrial Unionism

While syndicalist ideas found some echo in Britain during the final decade of the 19th century, it was the ideas of industrial unionism that initially came to prominence and took organisational form. This was the result of the efforts of the Socialist Labour Party (see part 10 of this series in WR 228). In its report to the 1907 Stuttgart Congress of the Second International, the SLP stated that it had been “the pioneer of revolutionary unionism in Britain” (Challinor, Origins of British Bolshevism, p54). From its foundation the SLP took up a very critical attitude towards the existing unions, identifying them as reformist and refusing to allow union officials to join. The creation of the IWW in the US was welcomed by the majority of the SLP, which voted at its fourth annual conference in 1906 to create an organisation to lay the basis for new unions in Britain. In the same year the SLP took an active part in a strike in Dundee which resulted not only in the workers gaining a pay rise of 5% but also in the formation of a new branch of the party. The Advocates of Industrial Unionism (AIU) was set up in August 1907. The SLP dominated the new organisation numerically but deliberately sought to have non-members in leading positions. In this sense the AIU was also an effort by the SLP to overcome divisions in the workers’ movement.

Although the SLP saw industrial unionism as only part of the struggle of the working class, it nonetheless argued that the revolutionary unions it hoped to create would not only be a means of fighting the revolution but would also be the foundation of the future socialist society: “Let us then organise industrially as well as politically for our class emancipation. Industrially to build up in the womb of capitalism the foundations of the future state of society… Politically to unseat the capitalist class from the power of government…” (The Socialist, quoted in Challinor op.cit. p88). Faced with the weight of the existing union structure however, the AIU decided that its militants should remain in the unions to spread the ideas of industrial unionism while also pushing for new unions when possible, a strategy which became known as dual unionism.

While most of the political organisations of the working class gave priority to parliamentary action, even dismissing strikes as irrelevant or counter-productive; some of their militants were influenced by industrial unionism. In the SPGB this led to a split, with the industrial unionists either leaving or being expelled. The SDF initially adopted a similar policy, although it was forced to relax as the numbers supporting industrial unionism grew as the strike wave went on. The ILP for its part took no such action, even though its leaders had no sympathy for industrial unionism. While the AIU itself remained small, with relatively few branches, it put a lot of effort into propaganda, in particular with the publication of a monthly paper The Industrial Unionist and the distribution of many pamphlets.

Many of the militants who joined the AIU were influenced by their experience of the recent strikes and the lack of support from the Labour Party (some of whose members introduced a Bill in 1911 to make strikes illegal unless 30 days notice was given), the ILP and the SDF were drawn towards the anti-parliamentary positions of syndicalism, while the policy of the SLP allowed them to assume control of the Executive of the AIU. The situation came to a head with the publication of an article in The Industrial Unionist that denounced the ballot as sterile and the parliamentary struggle as secondary to the industrial. While this did not actually amount to syndicalism it provoked a strong response from SLP members who formed the majority of the AIU’s membership. They refused to back the Executive, which resigned in May 1908. Others were expelled following the formation of a new Executive. The expelled members formed the Industrial League the same year, going on to reject the policy of dual unionism and gradually moving closer to syndicalism. In 1909 the AIU re-formed as the Industrial Workers of Great Britain but never became a significant organisation.

The Industrialist Syndicalist Education League

Syndicalist ideas were spread in Britain during the 1890s by a number of anarchists, with the anarchist paper Freedom occasionally reporting events in France. A number of short-lived periodicals, such as The General Strike and the Voice of Labour (Published once in 1904 and for the first nine months of 1907), promoted syndicalism and ‘direct action’. John Turner and Guy Aldred were leading figures in this movement, the latter having originally been a member of the SDF, and together they worked on the second Voice of Labour until they fell out. An organisation, confusingly called the Industrial Union of Direct Actionists was also founded by Turner in 1907 but collapsed too after a few months.

The publication in 1910 of the first issue of The Industrial Syndicalist, edited by Tom Mann, who had played a leading role in the strike movement of the late 1880s and subsequently in the ILP and then the SDF, marked the real beginning of syndicalism as a significant trend of the working class movement in Britain. Mann and his collaborator Guy Bowman drew support from a wide range of elements both within and outside the existing political organisations, including leading militants from the railways, transport workers and the South Wales coal fields who were at the forefront of the industrial struggle. In December 1910, a conference at Manchester launched the Industrial Syndicalist Education League. The founding resolution declared “That whereas the sectionalism that characterises the trade union movement of today is utterly incapable of effectively fighting the capitalist class and securing the economic freedom of the workers, this conference declares that the time is now ripe for the industrial organisation of all workers on the basis of class – not trade or craft – and that we hereby agree to form a Syndicalist Education League to propagate the principles of Syndicalism throughout the British Isles, with a view to merging all existing unions into one compact organisation for each industry, including all labourers of every industry in the same organisation as the skilled workers” (The Industrial Syndicalist, no. 6).

The following year when he resigned from the SDF, Mann wrote “I find myself not in agreement with the party on the important matter of parliamentary action… I declare in favour of direct industrial organisation, not as a means, but as THE means whereby the workers can ultimately overthrow the capitalist system and become the actual controllers of their own industrial and social destiny” (quoted in Tsuzuki, Tom Mann, p150). Although originally describing himself as non-political rather than anti-political, by 1912 he was arguing that “political action is of no use whatsoever” (quoted in Hinton British Syndicalism 1900-1945, p65).

The practice of the ISEL was to work within the existing trade unions, although it also contained dual unionists within its ranks. Many of its members were radical union officials, such as those in the Unofficial Reform Committee of the South Wales Miners Federation who produced The Miners Next Step in 1911. It also gave its support to the movement to amalgamate the existing unions, its militants within the building trades, for example, playing an active part in the Amalgamation Committee established within this industry.

The structure of the ISEL was initially very informal, its first AGM only being held in 1913. This, together with the lack of a clear statement of positions, was a deliberate policy of Mann’s to attract the widest possible range of supporters. The AGM followed two special conferences in 1912 and led to the creation of a more formal structure with local branches and an executive committee. Nonetheless, its aim remained to carry out “a campaign of education in the principles of syndicalism” (quoted in Hinton op.cit. p140). These steps were rapidly followed by a split following the growth of a largely anarchist section led by Bowman which had adopted the policy of dual unionism and called for the ISEL to be more revolutionary. The split led to the collapse of the ISEL. New organisations were subsequently set up, including a British section of the IWW, which defended dual unionism, and the Industrial Democracy League, which opposed it. In 1914 The Voice of Labour was launched as an openly anarcho-syndicalist publication, defending work in the existing unions while a rival anarchist publication, The Herald of Revolt, supported dual unionism.

The role of syndicalism and industrial unionism

Many of the militants in both the AIU/IWGB and the ISEL played an active and even leading part in the wave of industrial unrest. However, neither organisation played a role in the real evolution of the struggle. In the case of the ISEL this was because it did not seek to play such a role, the aim of Mann and most of its militants being to prompt the existing unions to take the lead, despite their domination by a conservative, class-collaborationist bureaucracy. In the case of the AIU/IWGB this was largely because it was too small to play such a role, not least because the policy of dual unionism won minimal support from the working class. Its most significant activity arose during a dispute at the Singer factory in Scotland where a branch of the IWGB was established. However, the defeat of the strike saw its militants dismissed and scattered, although many were later active in the struggles on the Clyde during the war.

Over and above these specific factors, both industrial unionism and syndicalism shared the same weakness of reducing or rejecting the political struggle. While the SLP specifically declared the necessity for the political struggle, its illusion that trade unionism could lay the foundation of the future socialist society and its concentration of efforts in the futile attempt to build new unions amounted to an obscuring of the true relationship between the industrial and political struggle. It failed to see clearly both that the essential value of the trade union struggle was the unification of the working class and that its own role was to contribute to the development of the class consciousness of the proletariat through its political clarity. The ISEL, in moving towards an increasingly anti-political stance, largely because it falsely equated political struggle solely with the parliamentary one, also moved towards an anti-organisational one and, ultimately, towards the sterility of anarchism.

While the growth of syndicalism and industrial unionism reflected the working class’ disillusionment with the Labour Party and the class collaboration of the trade unions, it did not contribute to the growth of the revolutionary potential of the working class but, on the contrary, to its weakening. We do not say this because, as the anarchists would claim, we believe that the working class needs a political organisation to tell it what to do, but because the nature and history of the working class show that its struggle is above all political. This is because its revolution is not about building up the new society within the old or creating the means to run this or that industry, or even taking over the economy as a whole, but because it is about taking power from the bourgeoisie and asserting its own class power. In this class war it needs to be organised and to know how to fight. The revolutionary class party is the weapon the working class itself forges in order to fight the bourgeoisie. In the next part of this series we will look at the effort the working class in Britain made in the years before the war to create such an organisation.


First published in World Revolution 232 (March 2000)


The struggle for the class party in Britain 1848-1914